The iPad 3G: Is the extra $130 worth it?

The new version of Apple's tablet delivers 3G connectivity, but there are trade-offs

Apple's newest iPad, the 3G-equipped model that arrived Friday, is identical to the earlier Wi-Fi-only model, save for a plastic black strip running along the top of the device -- for 3G reception -- and a SIM card slot on the lower left side. Otherwise, the iPad 3G offers the same features as the model that arrived April 3: same solid design and construction, same bright and sharp 9.7-inch screen, same battery life.

Other than weighing a tenth of a pound more (1.6 pounds instead of 1.5), the big difference is that you can now take online access pretty much wherever you go -- as long as there's an AT&T 3G network nearby and you're willing to pay an extra $130 (plus a monthly fee) for the privilege.

Where the Wi-Fi models cost $499, $599 or $699, depending on how much storage you get -- 16GB, 32GB or 64GB, respectively -- the iPad 3G starts at $629 and jumps up in $100 increments from there. The top-of-the-line model goes for $829.

The question iPad buyers have to consider is simple: Is the extra $130 worth it?

The answer depends on whether you require Internet access wherever you take your iPad. (Bear in mind, AT&T is the only 3G provider the iPad 3G works with in the U.S.; you could replace the tablet's SIM card with one for T-Mobile's service, but that only gets you T-Mobile's slower EDGE network. And AT&T's 3G service can be uneven, especially in places like New York City and San Francisco, where iPhone users have complained about AT&T's overtaxed network.)

In addition to paying more for the iPad 3G, you also have to pay for that data you'll be using. AT&T charges $14.99 per month for 250MB of data or $29.99 for unlimited access. This is charged to an assigned credit card on a monthly basis, and there's no contract or early termination fee. The plan can be enabled or disabled directly from the iPad itself, and you can stop the service without penalty. (Of course, 3G access is the reason most iPad 3G buyers waited for this particular model in the first place.)

If you're having trouble figuring which plan is best for you, and if you're an iPhone user, you can see how much data you use each month by going to Settings --> About --> Usage on the phone. This will give you some idea of your data use -- but keep in mind that you're likely to use even more on the iPad than on an iPhone.

Real-world performance

After selling my Wi-Fi-only iPad and waiting in line for the 3G model on Friday, I quickly signed up for an unlimited AT&T data plan to see how the iPad would perform. I found that the wireless reception is good, and download speeds are equivalent to what you'd see on an iPhone 3GS. In other words, it's not as fast as Wi-Fi, but it's fast enough for routine Web surfing, checking e-mail and using most of the apps you already have.

(Some apps are video-heavy and tell you directly that you need a Wi-Fi connection. Others are 3G-aware and throttle back on their bandwidth use to accommodate the 3G network. More about this in a minute.)

Although data speeds are the same as those of the iPhone 3GS, Web page rendering is faster because of the speedier processor in the iPad. So it might feel a little faster than the iPhone when you're surfing. And the handoff between Wi-Fi networks and 3G is smooth and seamless. The only indication that you've changed networks is that the icon in the upper left-hand corner of the screen changes.

Interestingly, the screen always shows you the strength of the 3G network around you, even if you haven't signed up for an AT&T plan. You just can't connect until you sign up.

Do you really need 3G?

Although the debate until now has been whether to go 3G or not, iPad buyers actually have another option: Buy the less-expensive Wi-Fi model and get a Verizon or Sprint MiFi device. MiFi units are pocket-size mobile hot spots that convert cellular data signals into a small Wi-Fi bubble -- good for allowing up to five separate Wi-Fi-enabled devices to connect.

MiFi units from Verizon sell for $269.99 retail (or $49 with a two-year contract, including instant discount). Monthly data plans cost $39.99 for 250MB or $59.99 for 5GB. Sprint charges $299.99 for its MiFi unit, but instant savings and a $50 mail-in rebate bring the price down to zero -- if you buy a two-year contract. Sprint has two separate monthly connection plans, and both cap 3G use at 5GB of data. One plan offers unlimited 4G service (which isn't widely available) in addition to the 5GB-capped 3G service; both plans cost $59.99 a month.

One benefit of using a MiFi device over the built-in 3G is that, as far as the iPad is concerned, it's connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi. This is important because of the limits to what can be done with 3G connectivity. For instance, App Store downloads are limited to 20MB, so forget about downloading that large game or that must-have software (such as the popular chemistry app, The Elements) while you're away from a Wi-Fi network.

For now, Skype and ABC's video player won't work at all with 3G (although an updated ABC app is reportedly on the way); YouTube and the Netflix player down-sample their video streams. This won't happen if your iPad is connected to a Wi-Fi network -- or to a MiFi unit.

I should note that while MiFi might be less expensive at first, the monthly charges do cost more over time than going with the iPad 3G and AT&T's network. MiFi makes sense if you want to offer access to more than one device or if you really need high-quality streaming video on the go.

If location-based services and GPS are important to you, the iPad 3G delivers. I've found that the GPS is more accurate on the iPad than it is on the iPhone. (iFixit's teardown of the newest iPad exposes a Broadcom BCM4750UBG Single-chip AGPS Solution; iPhone 3GS uses an Infineon Hammerhead II.) And it's more reliable than the Wi-Fi model, which offers similar GPS functions but can't pinpoint your location as well.

But that's of little consolation to those who want 3G access for specific tasks that the iPad 3G just can't handle, such as streaming episodes of Lost from ABC's video player while on the road. While it's nice to have a continuous Internet connection -- as well as true GPS capability -- I have to reiterate that unless you specifically need GPS, the less-expensive iPad, coupled with a MiFi device from another provider, might be a more logical solution.

One way in which the 3G model might be a smarter buy than the Wi-Fi-only unit is if you want to use the Find My iPad feature with a MobileMe subscription (a $99 yearly Internet service suite from Apple).

Find My iPad allows you to log onto Apple's MobileMe site and track down the location of a lost or stolen iPad. While this feature is available on the original iPad, if you've enabled passcode protection there's no way for the iPad to log into a wireless access point -- unless the finder/thief frequents the hot spots that you've already used.

It's a Catch-22: If the passcode lock is not active, you risk having your data falling into the wrong hands. On the other hand, if you have a passcode lock, the finder/thief would not be able to log into the device and establish a Wi-Fi connection, meaning Find My iPad would never update its location.

Like the iPhone before it, the iPad 3G with an active data connection and GPS would precisely pinpoint its location on the Find My iPad site.

Daily life with the iPad

After using the original Wi-Fi iPad for almost a month, I can tell you that the 3G model simply adds another wireless option to what was already an impressive device. Yes, the screen needs to be wiped off a lot; doing so has become a morning ritual, like brushing my teeth and eating breakfast. The iPad's fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating doesn't mean the screen isn't susceptible to fingerprints; it just means that those fingerprints are easily wiped away. (I've started carrying around the cleaning cloth that Apple supplies with its iMacs; it works very well at removing screen crud, and one should be included with every iPad.)

I've also found that the iPad has effectively replaced my laptop while I'm at work -- and the 3G access will only further cement that transition. The iPad is simply lighter and easier to carry than even a MacBook Air. When used with the Apple iPad Case, the iPad is like a thin, hardcover book -- a book that can access essential systems I need, such as our HelpDesk/Asset management system and our Windows Servers.

The one caveat is the ridiculous lack of Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) support. Yes, I can use virtual network computing to access the Macs on our network, but I'd like a more secure connection, especially since I use ARD as often as I use Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection.

Originally, I figured I'd come to bury the iPad software keyboard, not praise it, but after using the device extensively, I've grown accustomed to it. I can actually type on the unit in landscape mode using all of my fingers as if I were typing on a physical keyboard.

Caveat: This took training, and since there's no physical keyboard, you have to hover your fingers above the screen instead of resting them on the keys. With the proper placement and a little perseverance, it's quite possible to avoid using a physical keyboard, even though either iPad model can sync with Bluetooth units.

Another plus is that the iPad is absolutely quiet. There are no whirring fans and no mechanical parts; it runs cool to the touch and the battery lasts all day. "All day" in this case means I unplug the iPad at 6 a.m., use it all day, and then plug it back in at 11 p.m., before bedtime.

The iPad's battery puts netbook and laptop batteries to shame. And based on my tests, the addition of 3G access doesn't seem to have shortened the device's battery life appreciably.

Bottom line

The question for most iPad buyers a month ago was whether to take the early plunge and get a Wi-Fi-only model or wait a month for the version that includes 3G access. Now the question is whether you really need 3G access, with all of its network limitations and costs, or can get along fine using Wi-Fi alone. If it's the former, then your iPad has arrived. If it's the latter, and you still want occasional 3G connectivity, you might consider MiFi as an option.

Either iPad choice is a good one if you want to get your hands on the very latest in mobile technology -- at least until the next iPad arrives.

Michael DeAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. Follow him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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